Do Women in Power Act Differently From Men?

With the numbers of women in high office and corporate boardrooms creeping up slowly across the globe – not nearly fast enough, particularly in Asia – the question arises: Do women in power act differently from men?

Several studies of women’s involvement in environmental protection cited below seem to indicate that they do – marginally. How that plays itself out across the wider spectrum of politics and business remains to be seen. Is Yingluck Shinawatra, considered by some to be her brother’s puppet, an example? Or Angela Merkel, the current German Chancellor? Some women in politics, like the late Golda Meier of Israel and Indira Gandhi have not flinched from using force. The toughest of them was probably Margaret Thatcher, who ran the United Kingdom with an iron hand for more than 11 years and once famously told US President George H.W. Bush after Iraq invaded Kuwait: “Don’t go wobbly on me, George.”

Women are not entering the work force or politics nearly fast enough, particularly in Asia, according to an article by David Arkless, President of Global Corporate and Government Affairs, Manpower Group of London and printed in the Fall edition of the Global Asia Quarterly,

“Asian women are among the most under-utilized assets in today's labor market. Limits on women's participation in the workforce across the Asia-Pacific region cost the economy an estimated $89 billion a year.”

With 34 percent of employers worldwide citing difficulties in filling vacancies because of a lack of talent, training and promoting women makes considerable sense, Arkless writes. In Japan, 80 percent of employers reported difficulties filling positions. A natural solution would be to train more women in fields where demand for talent is high.

So what would happen if women entered political and governmental institutions in much larger numbers?

“Some evidence suggests that women’s involvement in political institutions is associated with better local environmental management,” says the 2011 Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Program, titled Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All. “Yet, women’s mere presence in institutions is not enough to overcome entrenched disparities – additional changes and flexibility in institutional forms are needed to ensure that women can participate effectively in decision-making.”

In some cases, the report continues, “including women and other marginal groups is perceived as a way of maintaining the status quo rather than achieving any specific outcomes or questioning inequalities. So what matters, then, is no simply women’s presence but the nature of their participation. An excerpt from

Gender inequalities are also reflected in women’s low participation in national and local political forums. This has ramifications for sustainability if, as some research suggests, women express more concern for the environment, support more pro-environmental policies and vote for pro-environmental leaders.

A series of studies came to these conclusions:

• Countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more likely to set aside protected land areas, according to a 2009 study of 25 developed and 65 developing countries by Colleen Nugent and John M. Shandra, titled State Environmental Protection Efforts, Women's Status, and World Polity: a Cross-National Analysis. However, why this result came about was not clear.

• Countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties, according to a study of 130 countries with 92 percent of the world’s people. (Kari Norgaard and John M. York, Gender Equality and State Environmentalism, 2005).

• Of the 49 countries that reduced carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2007, 14 were very high HDI (Human Development Index) countries, 10 of which had higher than average female parliamentary representation.

• But women continue to be underrepresented in national parliaments, on average occupying only 19 percent of seats and accounting for just 18 percent of ministers, according to a study, Women in National Parliaments, by the International Parliamentary Union. Higher positions are even more elusive: only seven of 150 elected heads of state and only 11 of 192 heads of government are women. The situation is similar in local government.

Other evidence suggests that gender empowerment and environmental awareness may be related. The number of women’s and environmental NGOs per capita was negatively correlated with deforestation in a study on 61 countries between 1990 and 2005. That may be partly because of women’s incentives to avert the negative effects of deforestation on their workload, income and health, according to The International Finance Corporation and Forest Loss: A Cross-National Analysis in 2008 by Shandra, Shandra and London.

In developed countries survey data shows that women are more likely than men to engage in environmentally sensitive behaviors, such as recycling, conserving water and avoiding environmentally harmful products (Gallup World Poll data)

But the relationship, far from straightforward, varies with development. An analysis of Gallup World Poll data on environmental attitudes suggests that concerns about environmental problems are not very high. On average, the attitudes of men and women differ little (differences between men and women are significant for perceived severity of climate change and government environmental efforts – at the 95 percent level – and for air quality and emissions policy – 99 percent level – but not for satisfaction of water quality), but some variation appears across Human Development Index groups.

In very high HDI countries women express more concern for environmental issues (climate change, water and air quality) than do men, while men express more concern in low HDI countries. The medium and high HDI countries (and most developing regions) fall in between.

While overall levels of education influence attitudes, the ratio of the share of women to men in secondary and tertiary education does not. The implication: women’s greater concern for the environment in rich countries is not a function of their having more education, nor is the converse true in very poor countries.

Some evidence suggests that women’s involvement is associated with better local environmental management. Yet women’s mere presence in institutions is not enough to overcome entrenched disparities – additional changes and flexibility in institutional forms are needed to ensure that women can participate effectively in decision-making. In some cases including women and other marginal groups is perceived as a way of maintaining the status quo rather than achieving any specific outcomes or questioning inequalities, according to a study, Gender, Development and environmental Management, by Seema Arora-Jonsson earlier this year.

What matters, then, is not simply women’s presence but the nature of their participation. Consider forestry management. A recently published study of community forestry institutions in India and Nepal found that women’s proportional strength in forest management committees affects the effectiveness of their participation. The more women on the management committee, the greater is the likelihood that they will attend committee meetings, speak up and become office holders.

The arguments here are not new. But they point to an important part of a reform package to address inequality and environmental degradation – with major expansions of women’s freedoms. As a critical dimension of people’s freedom, empowerment is an important end in itself. But disempowerment and power imbalances add to environmental challenges.

(© Women's Feature Service)